Borges, Jorge Luis (Vol. 10)
Borges, Jorge Luis 1899–
Borges is an Argentine short story writer, poet, essayist, critic, and translator. He is one of the most important and original figures in contemporary literature, best known for his Ficciones. Developing archetypal concepts of myth through fantasy, Borges creates a fictional world without the constants of time and reality, searching not for "truth" but for a polysemous quality of vision. He was influenced early in his career by the ultraísta movement in Spain, and brought this influence, with its emphasis on metaphor, to Latin America. Borges has collaborated with Adolfo Bioy Casares under the pseudonyms of H(onorio) Bustos Domecq and B. Suarez Lynch. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
Borges needs neither praise nor explanation from me or anyone else. My discussion of him, then, must be neither of these, though it may partake of both. It is a personal statement in the form of a modest fiction: the creation of a character named Borges, based on certain documents that have appeared in the English language bearing that name. The title of this performance might have been even more presumptuous—"Borges and I"—or, most presumptuous, "My Borges."
My Borges writes English, of course, though he has gone to some lengths to disguise this fact. Sometimes his works appear as translations made by people with patently fictional names like Norman Thomas di Giovanni. On other occasions he has published poems, designating these English texts as translations made by some of the finest poets of our day. (pp. 12-13)
The ingenuity of Borges in disguising his true situation can hardly be credited. He has gone to the incredible length of planting different versions of his English texts, sometimes so strikingly at odds that mere error can hardly account for the differences. Let me cite an instance of this, in which he has clearly overplayed his hand. In a book called Other Inquisitions, in a text bearing the possibly spurious dateline Buenos Aires, December 23, 1946, he writes of a supposed ancestor who
left Argentine letters some memorable poetry, and who tried to reform the teaching of philosophy by purifying it of theological shadows and exposing the principles of Locke and Condillac. He died in exile; like all men, he was born at the wrong time….
The clinching case for the Anglicism (whether British or North American) of this elusive author may be found in the writers he alludes to most frequently. There are in his works, of course, a few perfunctory references to Cervantes, Quevedo, and Unamuno, designed to provide a sort of literary local color, and there are even pseudo-allusions to South American authors who are probably inventions of Borges himself, like the notorious Honorio Bustos Domecq and B. Suarez Lynch. But the authors he returns to most often are a relatively small group of British men of letters who were prominent at the end of the last century: G. K. Chesterton, Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, G. B. Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, and H. G. Wells. He knows these writers better and reads them more sympathetically than most English teachers do. Can you imagine an English professor saying of Wilde, "He was an ingenious man who was also right"?… It is even harder to imagine an Argentine writer saying it. After all, not even the French, who dare to admire Poe, have gone so far as to admire Wilde. Even Gide only pitied him. But Borges is clearly steeped in the work of these British writers. They, along with the North Americans, Poe and Hawthorne, and a few Europeans like Kafka and Valéry, are his true literary ancestors. (p. 14)
By sketching for you a factually false version of Borges, I have intended to raise some questions about the relationship between fiction and reality which he has considered himself and upon which he has shed as much light as any living writer. And I have also intended to warn you that in my less obviously false presentation of Borges in the remainder of this essay, there will also be a certain measure of fiction. But now I propose to consider what Borges has had to say about the fact/fiction relationship, beginning in a very humble way by considering some of the instances of the word "reality" in his texts. My first set of illustrations will be taken from his essays on other writers collected in Other Inquisitions, where he takes up this problem on many occasions, with different emphases that are often quite illuminating.
Writing of Quevedo, he introduces a persistent theme in his critical work. He says of one sonnet, "I shall not say that it is a transcription of reality, for reality is not verbal…." This opposition between language and reality, the unbridgeable gap between them, is fundamental to the Borgesian vision, and to much of modern epistemology and poetic theory. In particular, the notion of a lack of contact between language and world is a characteristic of those schools of critical thought that are usually called "formalist."… It is frequently assumed that Borges is a typical formalist, who holds that language is self-contained and self-sufficient—self-referential, in fact. But this is simply not the case. Let us return to that statement about the Quevedo poem. In presenting it to you the first time I actually cut it off in mid-sentence. Here is the whole thing:
I shall not say that it is a transcription of reality, for reality is not verbal, but I can say that the words are less important than the scene they evoke or the virile accent that seems to inform them….
Poems are made of words and reality is not, yet there is something here between the words and the reality which is important. In this case there are actually two things: a "scene" evoked by the words and an "accent" that seems to inform them. This scene and this accent, then, are mediations between language and world. Born of words, they have nevertheless moved beyond words toward experiences. The words suggest a speaker with a virile accent; they imply a human being of an order of reality greater than their own. And they also present a scene which is realer than language, though it falls short of reality. These fictions or inventions, then, move language toward reality, not away from it. Artful writing offers a key that can open the doors of the prison-house of language.
Borges develops this idea further in his philosophic discussion, "Avatars of the Tortoise":
It is hazardous to think that a coordination of words (philosophies are nothing else) can have much resemblance to the universe. It is also hazardous to think that one of those famous coordinations does not resemble it a little more than the others, if only in an infinitesimal way….
The term "coordination of words," of course, applies equally well to philosophies and stories. They are all fictions because they are verbal and the universe is not. But again comes the qualifying notion. Some of these coordinations catch more of the universe than others. And Borges adds that, of those he has considered in this context, the only one in which he recognizes "some vestige of the universe" is Schopenhauer's. Reading this, we are permitted, or even obliged, to ask by what faculty Borges or anyone else is capable of recognizing vestiges of the universe in a mere coordination of words. I don't want to pause and consider this question here. Or you might say I can't. But Borges's statement seems to imply that we are in touch with reality in some way, either through valid perceptions or through intuitions which are non-verbal. (pp. 15-16)
Borges suggests that allegory fails when its fictions are reducible back to single word-concepts, but succeeds when its fictions function as complex signs moving away from simple concepts toward the "ungraspable reality." For Borges the tendency in language toward logic is a movement away from reality. The more precise and fixed the terminology, the more inadequate it must become. Thus allegory, at its best, is thinking in images, intuitive, and open to truth. Whereas logic is a kind of game, often admirable, but not likely to catch much of the universe in its play. (p. 17)
In discussing the writer to whom he is most justly generous, he elaborates this notion further, making his illustrations concrete and specific. Having discussed the excellence of H. G. Wells as a storyteller, and recounted with amusement the reaction of Jules Verne to Wells's The First Men in the Moon (Verne "exclaimed indignantly, 'Il invente!'"), Borges suggests that Wells's achievement rests on something even more important than ingenuity:
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Robert Martin Adams
Borges appears before us with the modest but cheerful demeanor of a stage-magician performing small acts of legerdemain with rapid confidence. Linguistically his surfaces are plain, not to say ordinary; his mode is eminently common-sensical, or at most owlish and scholarly. Far from being the mad scholar beloved of fiction-writers since Rabelais, he is reluctant and skeptical. But the train of his in vestigation leads as abruptly as may be to a logical crux, impasse, or surprise, involving more often than not a second order of nature, a cunning imitation of nature, or an esoteric order in nature.
Apart from Borges himself, there are few characters in his stories who amount to more than stick-figures....
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[The main concern of this article will be] a structuralist treatment of Dr. Brodie's Report. Structuralist analysis can do either of two things: it can expose the semantic and morphological syntaxes which combine the elements of a story into a whole, or it can show how structuralist intuitions, many of them philosophical in nature, illuminate what a writer is doing. I shall choose the second of these options; in the long run an exposition of the second kind better serves the general reader, since it can be applied with equal validity to everything Borges has written. The first premise of structuralism is that the human mind comes into the world with an a priori structure, and that this structure requires that...
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